Category Archives: Leadership

An XO’s Guide to Staff Dominance


By Josh Suthoff

Like any field grade I have spent a significant amount of time thinking about counseling. How do you effectively communicate to subordinates what you are looking for in them to be successful? I cherish my company grade years, but I have realized that the field grade and staff years really separate the best officers and non-commissioned officers from the rest of the pack. The ability to adapt and the level of agility become more easily discernible among the senior ranks. The maxim in organizations I have worked is, “Staff Dominance” (outperform your adjacent or higher headquarters). Be the best. But what does that look like or how do we get to the best?

I enjoyed my time as a battalion executive officer because I was able to influence many younger officers and NCOs and I understood that I directly affected how they saw and enjoyed their profession. Personally, I experienced very little counseling in the early years of my career and was determined to do things differently. One-on-one initial counseling is a great way to provide clear expectations and also learn a lot about subordinates. I have never believed in the massive memo-style counseling statements that explain in excruciating detail every aspect of a staff person’s job and obvious adherence to Army values. I think we can narrow down the qualities of a good officer/NCO to a few traits, my initial counseling format has little more than the bolded points below:

Answer the mail: Very simply, do what your boss tells you to do. Staff members should never have their own priorities, but constantly be working those of their boss. Leaders, especially at the pace the Army works, do not have time to run down answers to tasks after they are given. If your boss has to ask you twice about the status of priority task, you have probably failed. Once a subordinate has shown they can be given a task and come back on their own with the answer, they are well on their way to the circle of trust.

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On Networking: It’s Not About You


By: Jason Criss Howk

In the fall of 2002, I was a first lieutenant on the 82nd Airborne Division Staff in Afghanistan when I was selected by Major General Karl Eikenberry to be his aide. I extended my 4-month tour to a year-long deployment, and transplanted myself into the US Embassy in less than a week.

It was the best job a junior staff officer could get in the country. It was the equivalent to a master’s degree in international relations. But more than that it was a chance to learn about the power of constant networking, or what I refer to as Eikenberry’s 5% rule.

Over the course of 10 months, I spent 18 hours a day with Karl Eikenberry. I watched him use every minute of his day, every event, every meeting to network with others that could help achieve America’s broader mission.

When most people here the word networking they immediately think of it in a bad light. It’s for brown-nosers or people looking to cheat the army promotion and assignment system. But there’s another way to look at it. It’s the way some of our most successful war-time leaders view it.

Networking is not about you. Not about your next job. Not about an early promotion. Not about your selfish desires.

Networking is what makes good leaders great. It’s about connecting every single person in the JIIM universe that might be able to make America’s broad mission successful. Since 2001 some “masters of networking” have revolutionized military units like the Joint Special Operations Command, making it the model for other military units and interagency cooperation. In the end, networking is the glue that connects “teams of teams.”

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Future Army Leaders: Expert Specialists or Master Generalists?


By Franklin C. Annis, EdD

Many of us know the adage, “A jack of all trades and master of none.” This phrase, in the modern usage, is usually used to describe an individual that is functional in several different skills but lacks the ability to really perform well in any of them. However, the phrase may have carried a significantly different meaning when it was first invented. Almost no one knows the passage often ended with the clause, “…is sometimes better than a master at one.” This addition significantly changes the meaning of what we can draw from the phrase. Often polymaths, individuals with interest in a multitude of areas, possess a distinct advantage over those that specialize in only one subject (monomaths). As the Army continues to push leaders to think outside the box it may be time to examine how “the box” developed and how we can truly test its limits.

What we think of as “the box” probably has an origin much earlier than many would guess. In 1840, the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the industrial revolution drastically increased the productivity of society by having individuals focus on one specific step in a manufacturing process. While he noted the increase in productivity, he also noted that it robbed men of something larger. While the “art” of manufacturing may have improved, it came at the expense of the artisan. As Tocqueville explains in his work Democracy in America, “While the workman concentrates his faculties more and more upon the study of a single detail, the master surveys an extensive whole, and the mind of the latter is enlarged in proportion as that of the former is narrowed.” As workers became more and more specialized, they soon adapted strict concepts and assumptions that applied only to the craft of making their assigned part.

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The 2018 Ultimate Summer Reading List


With summer vacations quickly approaching I reached out to a group of successful leaders, authors, journalists, and podcast hosts for book recommendations. I asked them to suggest a book and why they picked it.

The books on this list range from science fiction to leader development to quantum physics. I hope you find a title on this list that sparks your interest and you grab a book, a beer, and enjoy your summer.

General (RET) Stanley McChrystal, Managing Partner of McChrystal Group


The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam by Max Boot

I’ve just finished Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken, Edward Landsdale’s story, focused heavily on the Philippines and Vietnam.  While it’s a good narrative of Landsdale’s unique role in America’s counterinsurgency efforts in Southeast Asia during the Cold War, the angle I found fascinating (and cautionary) was not Landsdale’s deft skill in dealing with foreign leaders like Magsaysay and Diem, but his failure within our own governmental bureaucracy.  It raises the question to what extent his ideas struggled due to the messenger and not the validity of the message.

Admiral (RET) James Stavridis, Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University



American War: A Novel by Omar El Akkad


A first novel by the Canadian-Arab journalist Omar El Akkad, this searing tale moves the reader forward over half-a-century into a dystopian future in which a second American civil war has unfolded.  The south is again pitted against the rest of the country, this time over the use of hydrocarbons.  Mexico has invaded the US and annexed portions of the southwest, and other parts of early 21st century America have succeeded.  Florida is overcome by rising sea levels and no longer exists.  Our society is brutally polarized.  Against this backdrop, the characters of this novel  grow, love, struggle, and sacrifice for the causes in which they passionately believe.  Is this the future of the United States?  Hopefully not; but the potential extension of the extreme divisions in our society today are clearly the inspiration for this brilliant and tragic tale.

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Improving Decision-Making Through Games


By: Ilhan Akcay

War games are a great way to learn about history and warfare on all levels in a simple, low-cost, easy to setup environment. This article and the attached listing present a few war games, placed into four categories that I‘ve found extremely useful for self-study.

Professional military education is a continuous process that doesn’t end at command. When you stop learning, you stop being relevant. A leader’s limited time and the high demands of this profession make it hard to find opportunities to learn on the job. The junior officer or NCO looking to improve his tactical skills has to do it on their own time. Another problem is how we make decisions. Formalized military decision-making is designed for staff work, is time consuming, and ill-suited for the tactical environment.[1]

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Army PAOs and the Often-Overlooked Strategic Seat ‘At the Table’


CBS News anchor Scott Pelley interviews then-Col. Patrick Frank, commander of the 3rd BCT, 10th Mountain Division in 2011 during a CBS Evening News segment on coalition progress in Afghanistan. During his interview, the commander was able to solidify the information fight through key themes and messages. (Photo Courtesy of Capt. Kevin Sandell)

By Captain Kevin Sandell

When U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched into Syria this past April, it was a Navy Mass Communications Specialist who captured the viral footage shown on national and international news networks. It was an Army Public Affairs officer who masterminded the community relations role of Operation Dragoon Ride in 2015 during Operation Atlantic Resolve. In 1999, the collective efforts of two combatant commands to ease Y2K hype resulted in a 50 percent decrease in public concern for the effects of Y2K on U.S. strategic systems.

Public Affairs professionals play a crucial role in today’s operational and information environment. Shaping operations through a Public Affairs lens can pay dividends for achieving strategic objectives, and should be considered equally among other planning factors. We as Public Affairs practitioners, earn our stripes when we fight for a seat — and prove ourselves — alongside our primary staff colleagues.

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What To Do When the Army Stops Promoting You


By: Major Bob Gordon

Imagine you’ve been married for more than 15 years. There have been ups and downs, but for the most part, it has been a fun, exciting, mutually beneficial, and fruitful relationship.

Then one day, your spouse comes to you and says, “Look, this isn’t working out. It’s not me – it’s you. You’re just not good enough. I want a divorce, but not right away. You’re going to stay married to me until our twentieth anniversary. Until that time, I expect you to act and perform your duties as my spouse, but you will receive none of the benefits and perks of being married. No date nights, no back rubs, no rewards, and no physical activity between us, unless I decide that you’re required to perform such acts. Just do as you’re told. Then, once we’ve hit our 20-year anniversary, you can divorce me.”

“But wait a minute,” you argue. “That’s not fair. After all I’ve given you, now you just tell me we’re done, that we have no future, but that I still have to do all this work for you? Forget that! I want a divorce today if that’s how you feel. There are other fish in the sea!”

“Oh, you want out now?” your spouse responds dryly. “Fine. Go ahead and walk. Oh, but do you remember that joint account we opened together back when we got married? If you walk away before we hit our 20th anniversary, you get none of it. If you stay though, you get half of it, for the rest of your life.”

“Fine,” you relent. “Can I ask just one thing though? Can you please not tell any of our friends? If I have to live like this, at least don’t let anyone know. I’d be so ashamed.”

Your spouse chuckles. “Of course I won’t tell them. Oh, but I do need you to continue wear this gold oak leaf pin on all your clothes. That way everyone knows we’re still married, but that you weren’t quite good enough to go the distance. Think of it as your own, personal scarlet letter.”

Begrudgingly, seeing no other viable options, you agree.

“Now, chin up, darling. No one wants to see a sad sack in our home. Get to work. The dogs need to be fed, and that laundry isn’t going to wash itself…”

While this is a somewhat absurd story, it is in fact exactly what the Army does when it selects certain officers and NCOs for continued service (SELCON) after being passed over for promotion. With the expiration of the Temporary Early Retirement Authority (TERA), under which some officers and NCOs were allowed to retire with between 15 and 20 years of service – with full benefits except for a reduced retirement pay – this will become a new norm for the foreseeable future.

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The Universal War


By: ML Cavanaugh

Whether I was with cadets or Koreans, I had a problem.

As a military officer assigned to teach military strategy at West Point, and then on a staff alongside officers from the Republic of Korea, I kept bumping into the same challenge. Whenever I wanted to talk strategy, I could never get my point across.

We were just never on the same page. You see, for two people to talk strategy, both must be familiar with the case in question, whether it’s in business, politics, or war. To discuss even something as studied as strategy in the American Civil War requires both parties to be deeply knowledgeable about the conflict. This necessary baseline quickly creates communication problems, particularly across national divides.

To bridge those generational and cultural divides, I had to find a shared frame of reference. A conflict we all knew a lot about. This common terrain also had to be fascinating.

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How Good Leaders Communicate: Conduits vs Reservoirs


By: MAJ Ryan C. Boileau, Sr

Over my 25-plus year military career, I have benefitted from mentors who shared their knowledge with me. A common trait in all great leaders is being a conduit of knowledge – disseminating and sharing what they know to those who could benefit from their knowledge. This is palpable in any organization: observe the way information flows and you can tell if a leader serves as a conduit of information or as a reservoir, requiring subordinates to pull information from them.

Reservoir leaders typically are not aware of their own shortcoming. Reservoirs believe they are effective because subordinates constantly seek them out for information, input, or opinions. This creates a perception of positive leadership; the leader issues initial guidance, the operator returns for feedback, and all appears to be well. However, if the reservoir is removed, no additional information will be forthcoming and all momentum stops. This is the fallacy: subordinates working for a reservoir cannot operate independently. Subordinate elements cannot function in the leader’s absence.

By contrast, a conduit shares all available information with action elements, enabling continuity of effective operations even when the source is removed. Through effective dissemination, subordinate and adjacent elements can determine the best courses of action without circling back for detailed guidance. The choice to operate as a conduit rather than a reservoir of information can be difficult, because it removes the outward perception of positive feedback.

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Will Machines Change War as We Know It?


I recently had the pleasure of reading a copy of Paul Scharre’s Army of None: Autonomous Weapons and the Future of War and it quickly became the book I recommend to any leader wishing to understand the complexity of autonomous systems. He provides readers with the most up to date legal, moral, and technical aspects of autonomous weapons and their impacts on the future of war. Tech already plays an important role in the military, and it’s only increasing. Army of None is a great place to begin thinking about it’s utility in future conflict. Last week I caught up with Paul and he shared his thoughts on autonomous weapons and war.

Joe: Does the current DoD policy state that we will always keep a person somewhere in the autonomous weapon decision chain?

Paul: The official DoD policy on autonomous weapons does not require a human in the loop. That’s a common misconception. However, when senior DoD and military leaders talk about autonomous weapons, they often say “We intend to keep a human in the loop.” The official policy actually gives a lot of latitude. And it lays out a series of guidelines and processes for gaining approval to include increased autonomy in weapon systems.

Joe: Where do you think we will fight the first battle of autonomous weapons vs. autonomous weapons? State actors or non-state actors?

Paul: The first autonomy vs. autonomy will likely take place in cyber space. Autonomy is moving forward in leaps and bounds and there are so many compelling pressures to take humans out of the loop because of speed. For instance, when you are operating on the enemy’s network you might not have persistent access and the time to move at the speed of human decision-making, so you will need something that’s able to operate out on it’s own. I think you will see an increase in autonomous systems operating on their own, battling it out on computer networks.

Joe: What impact will autonomous weapons have on the character and the nature of war?

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